John Michael Kohler Arts Center
art museum in Sheboygan, Wisconsin



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John Michael Kohler Arts Center
art museum in Sheboygan, Wisconsin
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608 New York Avenue
Sheboygan, Wisconsin
United States

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Once described by an exhibiting artist as being “fabulous… like the Whitney on mescaline.”

The John Michael Kohler Art Center (JMKAC) proves that there is more to Wisconsin than cheese. Covering over a city block , the museum is home to gardens, a theatre, performance and classroom spaces, twelve galleries, a café, an artist’s residency program, the coolest bathrooms in the country (you heard me Madonna Inn), and a truly refreshing take on what constitutes a museum piece.

Created with the support of the Sheboygan Art Foundation the museum was established in 1967 in the former Kohler family mansion. The Kohler’s have long supported design and innovation, dating back to 1873 when John Michael Kohler founded the Kohler Company and began producing everything from farming equipment to ornamental gravestones. Now known for toilets, the company also introduced the nation to the “bubbler” which is Wisconsin for a drinking-fountain. Head of the company, Herbert Kohler Jr. and his sister Ruth, the long-standing director of the museum, control over $5 billion in revenue. I’d happily be the butt of toilet related puns for that load.

Perhaps inspired by her grandfather’s eye for elegant industrial design, as director Ruth introduced a residency program in 1976, which encourages artists to utilize factory materials and facilities in creating work that may otherwise be inaccessible. Hence entire bathroom installations fired in the company’s huge kilns. Ruth has also been implemental in crafting the museum’s mission statement, which promotes “vernacular environments” (what us plebes call folk art). Inspired after a visit to a dead self-taught artist’s house in 1983, Ruth acquired almost his entire collection, over 600 pieces that the museum then displayed. Since then the museum makes it a point to exhibit self-taught artists as much as possible, often acquiring and displaying entire bodies of work as they were found in the artist’s home. You know that neighbor who hoards bones and Barbie limbs while constantly smelling of paint thinner? Yeah, he just may be getting ready for his JMKAC exhibition.

You may be thinking that free (yes, free!) parking and admission to bathrooms and Leather Face’s opening isn’t enough. Firstly, follow the museum’s lead and expand your definition of art. Secondly, there is more! Live music and art festivals are happening constantly, not to mention classes for all ages, films, lectures, and docent led tours of the museum and the nearby Kohler factory.

My favorite in a long list of reasons why JMKAC is my new best friend is an itinerary put together by the curators to showcase local art in its “vernacular environment.” Their Wandering Wisconsin page provides a road guide to the best art stops complete with an audio tour to interrupt your Broadway road trip playlist (is there any other kind?). Whether you trip by mescaline or road, this place has you covered.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about John Michael Kohler Arts Center

The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a not-for-profit art museum operated by the Sheboygan Arts Foundation, Inc., located in downtown Sheboygan, Wisconsin, United States. The original house at the facility is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the John Michael Kohler House.

The Sheboygan Arts Foundation, Inc. was created in 1959 and its first board included Mrs. Walter J. Kohler III.

In 1966, the Kohler Foundation donated the Kohler family homestead to the Sheboygan Arts Foundation, Inc. for the use of the arts center. The center was established the following year and was expanded to 100,000 square feet (9,300 m2) beginning in 2000. It reaches 160,000 people each year and an estimated 4 million since its inception. The center has ten galleries, a theater, performance and meeting spaces, studio-classrooms, an all ages/all abilities activity space known as The ARTery, an on-site retail shop called ARTspace, and a cafe named ARTcafe. The center also has an adjunct site called ARTspace at the Shops at Woodlake, which is an exhibition space and shop in the nearby village of Kohler.

Programming at the center includes dance performances, art exhibits, festivals, music performances, and theatre; an arts based preschool, classes, demonstrations, lectures, and tours. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center has an arts/industry program, the primary component of which is a residency program at Kohler Company. Artists have the opportunity to spend two to six months creating works of art utilizing industrial materials and equipment. The center is known for its artist-created public toilets, which cultural historian Barbara Penner uses as the introduction to her 2013 book Bathroom.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about John Michael Kohler Arts Center.